Brownish Black is a band coming out of Portland’s Breakup Records label. Their amalgamation of a more traditional R&B sound with garage influences brands them as the unique and talented band that they are. I was able to exchange a few words with singer MD Sharbatz.
How is the writing process – not only lyrically but also instrumentally – when you have an eight person band?
MD Sharbatz: The songs are mainly written by me and our bassist / musical arranger, mub Fractal. The bulk of the catalog is mine, so I’ll speak for the process. The melodies usually just come to me and I’ll figure them out on guitar. I’ll usually bring what I have to mub and he’ll help me fill in the blanks. That’s the easy part. Banging them out with the core of the group comes next and can take a while, but that’s definitely the fun part. There has to be a real, emotional stimulus for lyric writing, though. This is what gives authenticity to our songs.
When recording do you cram everyone in at once or is it more of a chop and screw type of thing, where parts are recorded separately?
MD Sharbatz: We like to record the rhythm section live, with everyone else on scratch, to get as close to the true energy and intention of the song as possible. This usually leads to a bit of a cram, but we’ve been lucky enough to have a wall or two between us. The rest is patched together over time.
Touring with that many people must be difficult. During touring do you have to cut down on the members or just tough it out and accommodate everyone?
MD Sharbatz: We haven’t road-dogged it yet, but we have played plenty of out-of-town shows, the furthest drive being to Southern California. We’re a two-car band, no doubt about it. We really prefer to take the whole group. I’ve seen enough bands that I like as smaller versions of themselves and it’s almost always a bit of a disappointment. We play real instruments, so four of us just can’t recreate the sound of eight musicians. I can’t help but feel obligated to deliver what the fans are expecting. It’s also just more fun.
How did the band meet? Was their a Joy Division-like moment when the members crossed paths in a dingy punk room or was it more of a “Drummer Wanted” moment?
MD Sharbatz: The band was born when I moved here from Detroit about 7 years ago. The process of building it came slowly but surely, more word of mouth and bringing people to the practice space than anything.
I read that your musical styling was more ingrained in a heavier sound. Was the transition from a more aggressive sound to soul a difficult one? Did any of the other members gear towards other music or was it always soul centered?
MD Sharbatz: Yes, the music of my early years was plain pissed off. The world hasn’t gotten any better, so neither has my outlook. I’ve managed to keep my edge growing up. The day I get soft, somebody tell me! The transition worked well because of the type of “soul music” we play. As mub once said, there’s a distinct period in time where soul became r&b. It’s when it lost the rock n roll, which made it high energy and rowdy when need be. Our band members come from all sorts of musical experience: punk, experimental psych, indie, big band, early electronic dance music, etc. We seem to have a similar goal of being authentic and big.
Portland is a place where a lot of different music has broken through and become accepted. Do you feel the people have embraced you guys as the soul outfit you are, or have you had to win them over a bit?
MD Sharbatz: When we started as a three piece, people didn’t really get it. It was an unusual kind of garage music. Soul music wasn’t cool again, yet, so there weren’t a lot of Portlanders looking for it. It was also hard to get a good pairing for gigs. Now that’s all changed. We’ve proven that we have something good to offer, and folks are showing up. Not only that, but they expect to have a good time dancing and we are happy to provide.
When touring, do people usually “get” you guys? I’m sure it’s harder to gather a crowd for soul as opposed to some noisy punk band.
MD Sharbatz: We’ve never had a problem enjoying ourselves on stage. I think that allows the crowd to get into it. It’s rare to see bands expressing themselves with their bodies, sadly, so when they see me jumping around and the band rocking out, they know we’re being true to ourselves. People appreciate that and always wanna get a closer look.
“Le Systeme” sounds like a cry against the current social standing here in the US.Where do your songs come from? What are they rooted in?
MD Sharbatz: Whether the songs are angry or joyful, there’s hope in them. Le Systeme is a refusal to participate in self-destructive behavior. Mainly watching where your money goes. It calls out specific types of people who I know offer nothing to improve the world. I’m not afraid to point out guilty parties. I’m working on a new song about landlords in Portland. The love songs come from having an open heart. I don’t have a problem appreciating someone whom i care about in a song. It’s not me being soft, though. Don’t be mistaken. I’ve always been good at picking up on energy, telling the story.
And the last question is: Do you have anything to announce, other than your album, of course, dropping June 16th?
MD Sharbatz: We have a big show on June 11th at the Goodfoot in SE Portland. Our buddies Thanks, and DJ N-Able are joining us, along with some special guest players and singers. We will have CDs of the new record available at the show. Vinyl coming soon.
We’re also about to launch our website, we have an OPB Studio Session coming out very soon and we’re on this year’s PDX POP NOW! compilation with a bunch of friends, including Thanks and Moon By You.
We’re working on a lot of great new material, and we’re ready to slay this summer, with some guest players and lineup changes. We’re in a good spot, and Portland is finally ready for us.
Thanks to MD Sharbatz, the rest of Brownish Black and the Breakup Records family.